As featured in issue 15 of Ethos Magazine
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This feature by Fiona Shaw was originally written for Ethos Magazine, where she speaks to the co-founder of Humans for Earth about their inspiration and mission to amplify the voices of those directly impacted by global warming and other young climate activists.
Fiona Shaw talks to Humans for Earth’s Aparna and Neerja Choudhuri, about the power of story to create change…
“Humans of New York has been my biggest, inspiration in starting this, because when I read his [Brandon Stanton’s] stories, I was stunned. Imagine. New York has so much diversity. And he was just putting out simple stories. They’re not that big; it’s not like won everybody’s won an Olympic medal. But these stories are so touching. That is exactly how you leverage social media to make a change,” says Aparna Choudhuri, smiling.
In 2020, Aparna was invited to be a part of the summit called the World Sustainable Development Summit, in New Delhi. But – in spite of spending her days around professors, politicians and diplomats from around the world: “Nobody was talking about how climate change is impacting humans in their day-to-day lives. Impacting people like you and me,” she says.
That was the moment that led her to launch Humans for Earth, which she runs alongside sister Neerja. “We are the ones who are directly impacted by climate change,” says Aparna. “With that in mind, I thought, why not start a blog where I can ask people around me a simple question: what does sustainability mean to you? Or what do you think climate change is, how it has been impacting your life?”
The two have harnessed the power of the internet to connect with other activists around the world, and now have small teams in Sydney and New York, alongside their Delhi base.
“I see a country like Australia and the wildfires are raging and very recurrent every year. Yet nobody is talking about it the way it should be – it should be there in the headlines like a pandemic, humanity needs to come forward and act,” says Aparna. “It’s about amplifying voices of people who are directly impacted by global warming and sustainability.”
Aparna and Neerja have grown up surrounded by stories about climate change, Aparna competing in a fifth grade competition about global warming, and Neerja admitting to being inspired by her older sister: “She made me understand the importance of sustainability and the climate change aspect. Now it’s my job to amplify it,” she says.
“As I grew up, whatever predictions the scientists had made were all coming true,” says Aparna. “It was pretty horrifying to understand this. I came across this competition called Youth Climate Control under the aegis of the World Sustainable Development Summit – they wanted us to apply and talk about how climate change is impacting different sectors.
“I’m a software engineer, so represent the corporate sector. But working for something as a part of CSR corporate social activity is different – ultimately, as humans we have big goals and responsibilities of things. It’s not like you are picking up garbage from the beaches as part of CSR activity. You have to make sure that you are not polluting by using plastics…”
The premise is simple: the two use their blog and Instagram to tell stories from the climate change community, amplifying their efforts. They are stories of activists and ethical business owners across the world (it’s only Antarctica they have yet to cover), as they build a powerful base of people trying to create change.
“When we initially started, it was just two of us working here from New Delhi,” says Aparna. “When we decided to expand the team a little, all we had to do was to connect to people via Instagram. In the age of the internet, the world is a very small community. We reached out to different change makers who are working towards climate change or who are good at interviewing people, because we need people who can interact really easily. We found one in New York City and two interns from Sydney. It’s better to have a local interacting because they know the nuances of the place or the neighbourhood.”
Neerja championed the idea of internships, as the blog grew and diversified. “We started looking for college undergraduates like me [she is a law undergrad] who are passionate about working in the field of environment. We started teaching them about material to read around the SDGs; came up with some pretty interesting tasks. We need voices to reach as many as possible – undergrads like me, they want their voice to be heard. We want their opinions. They tell us what the impact in their country is, for example, on education; or how climate change is affecting things. It’s about sharing information.”
The community is growing, fast, capturing the imagination of a generation just like them. They see the world as a small place, and use the connectivity of social media to take individual responsibility for making a difference. From Fridays for Future to Extinction Rebellion, young people approach global collaboration differently to, well, me. “We didn’t expect this to become that big,” says Neerja. “We began to share stories and, after a certain point, saw our voices being amplified. Then people just contacted us and said ‘hi, this is my story. This is how I’m involved with climate change. And, you know, it would be lovely if it featured us.’”
The pair have collaborated with change makers like UN millennium fellow Chloe Holloway. “She runs an organisation called MICA – Minorities in Climate Action,” says Aparna. “The perspective is vital because she invited me to be a part of the summit and become a speaker, and I came to know that when it comes to fighting climate change, it’s related to minorities and racial justice.
“And that has taught me a lot. Sustainability is not just about discarding plastic. It is a lot to do with gender bias, about racial justice, about how a certain section of the society is totally ignored when it comes to fighting climate change. I hope that someday I can reach that level that I can tell policy makers that it’s time we involve youth more in this process, because we have a generation that’s going to feel the impact and fight.”
The morning I speak to Aparna and Neerja I’ve received an email from UN Compact. “Indigenous Peoples protect 80% of the earth’s remaining biodiversity and have invaluable knowledge for working with nature and supporting the diverse range of ecosystems that people and businesses rely on,” it says. “It is critical that businesses understand how they can support and engage with these groups to deliver the full range of benefits offered by nature-based solutions and avoid negative consequences.” My knowledge about climate change is evolving. I usually feel like I’m playing catch-up, and it’s pretty one dimensional. It’s more about plastic or petrol or pollution than equality and accessibility and racial and social justice: these two have conversations most days with people around the world. They live and breathe this knowledge.
“The idea of Humans for Earth is essentially to capture stories that are important,” says Aparna. “We have been able to cover just a fraction. There are so many stories about indigenous people, for example, who are not interviewed so far. But I know that people should play a role in saving the environment for their own indigenous practises. I want our organisation to become reliable, so that these communities feel safe and come forward and tell us their stories.
“That will only happen when you’re able to reach more followers. Social media is really, really powerful. We live in a time that people spend hours and hours on Instagram. So I want to leverage the power of Instagram and use it for something good. Use it so that the voices reach and tune in to every nook and corner of the world.”
I ask the pair about attitudes towards climate change in India. “It’s pretty lopsided,” admits Aparna, as is the case in so many places. “There’s one section that’s full of gusto and enthusiasm to work towards climate change. But there’s another section that doesn’t have access to basic amenities; they don’t have access to drinking water or clothing and healthcare and education and food.
“But they are the ones that are the climate victims. If they don’t have a roof over their head and it rains more than normal, they are the ones who suffer the most. That is the problem with third world countries. Not only India, but Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.”
There are also deeply-rooted traditional skills at play here, too. “People in towns and villages, they are much more aware of the SDGs (sustainable development goals) as a concept,” says Aparna. ”They wouldn’t know them as a label, but they’re very aware of these concepts because that knowledge has been passed on to them through generations.
“My forefathers were pretty clued up about about rainwater harvesting; about which plants to keep depending on the weather; which fruits and vegetables should be planted in the back yard. That kind of knowledge is here in India.
“In urban areas, they’re more likely to focus on concepts like education and gender equality, because the workforce are pretty much settled in the urban areas. So they’re really divided into two parts: something related to the environment, people have the knowledge and it’s pretty ancient and effective. In the urban areas the focus is different. So we want to show people that it’s all the same thing – that it’s not just about the environment, it’s about the human society as a whole and how we live.”
We have spent much of the last year talking about some of the unexpected consequences of the pandemic: a drop in pollution, reduced carbon emissions and a transition towards more sustainable energy. There are some closer to home, too. Aparna says: “The pandemic gave both of us a chance to observe our parents and grandparents, while we’ve all been cooped up inside the four walls of our house. And you know, mending things, recycling things, repairing things – these are inherent in them. They know how to reuse things. They know how to recycle things. The pandemic to give us a chance to interact with the grandparents…
“Our generation, if we don’t like something we just discard it. But our grandparents know the value of things. I like this part of the pandemic. It has been harsh on all of us, but in retrospect, it’s helped us to observe sustainable practises followed by our grandparents and the generations before them.”
The Choudhuris have a different attitude to their parents and grandparents than we hear in the UK, where the generations are pitted against each other. There’s no blame levelled at the post-war generation here, because development in India has followed a very different pattern to the west. “The generations before us knew the sustainable practises, they were polluting the environment a little less than we are doing,” says Aparna.
We talk about the idea of belonging, and shifts in migration patterns. Globally, we increasingly live in urban areas – pandemic aside – and wonder whether there’s less of that sense of belonging; that connection to the land on which you grow food and medicine and self-sufficiency?
“Our generation is pretty free flowing when it comes to adopting change,” Aparna says. “We migrate to a new city… OK, it is home. The room feels like home. But at the end of the day, it’s just an apartment I’ve rented for the duration of my work. Indians feel that their home belongs with their parents. But since we’re migrating more, the sense of belonging is lacking.”
But that sense of belonging exists online. Humans for Earth has just launched its series of online mini summits, hosting their first the weekend before we spoke. “We had software developers who are making an app to map carbon footprint and we had bloggers and friends who are working with different organisations and they came forward and shared their ideas,” says Aparna. “When you interact with such a diverse range of people, you get new ideas. Loneliness and racial justice, these were some of the ideas that came up at a summit. Is the fight a little divided because of gender bias? Questions like that.
“This global collaboration and the enthusiasm amongst people like us helps you know more, because then you can do more. You can discuss more. When you gather the voices together, that’s how things become a movement. This is a collection of people, the same mindset. We believe that collaborating and connecting is one of the major aspects for making climate change an even bigger and stronger movement. Collaboration means a lot for us,” she admits.
So many of the Humans for Earth community are young people making their values clear in small, ethically-led businesses. I’m not sure my generation ever thought we could make a difference in such a direct, individual way, I say. “Well of course, social media has been such a huge advantage to all of us,” agrees Aparna. “Without it, I couldn’t imagine talking to somebody from Belgium and discussing their ideas. It’s become such a strong medium of communication and people have become fearless. Things are not impossible: there is an opportunity.
“Young people are very spontaneous. If they don’t have something, they will make it. Our Instagram features a lot of young people with small businesses because at some point they have felt the need. It’s very important for young people to get on their feet to do the thing they feel they need.”
That’s the goal. And we’re seeing it, across the world.
First published in October 2021 in issue 15 of Ethos Magazine
Weeva stands firmly for ethical business practices and believes in fair-trade journalism. This article has been syndicated and paid for with kind permission of Ethos Magazine.